Google’s global headquarters has the uncanny feel of a carnival. Beneath cloudless California skies, engineers in board shorts glide through the leafy campus on brightly coloured bicycles.
Step inside and you’ll find a cavalcade of attractions: giant stuffed animals and a VW camper van are parked up in the corridors beneath signs advertising belly dancing and K-pop classes.
In the distance, a colossal tent-like structure resembling a circus big top is under construction, which once complete in 2021 will be the company’s new HQ.
Amid all this excitement — and with gushing profits of over US$15 billion ($20.4 billion) in the first six months of 2019 — for Google’s ringmaster in chief, there should be plenty to smile about.
But Sundar Pichai, 47, is in a sombre mood. Seated in a first floor meeting room overlooking Silicon Valley, the search giant’s chief executive admits the pressures of the job sometimes get to him.
“I don’t sleep well when we get things wrong,” he says. “When we make a mistake, it’s obvious to the world. So it’s something I feel.”
A lanky south Indian who joined Google in 2004 and has served as chief executive since 2015, these days Pichai has plenty to keep him up at night.
Since its creation in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, PhD students at nearby Stanford University, Google has unleashed on the world a blizzard of products that have transformed the way we live — from its eponymous search engine to Gmail, Google Maps, the Android operating system and its Google Chrome browser.
As a business, Google has become a formidable machine, generating colossal profits and turning Page and Brin into some of the world’s richest men with a simple formula: hoovering up oodles of data on users and serving up highly relevant ads. But as Google turns 21, the mood in Mountain View has darkened. It is Pichai who finds himself carrying the can.
Besieged by concerns about toxic content, data privacy, tax and the use of Google’s YouTube service by paedophiles and extremists, Pichai finds himself in a maelstrom of controversy over the role big tech companies play in society — and in a battle with regulators over how to rein them in. Wearing a dark shirt and glasses, Pichai sets out the complex juggling act Google faces in trying to keep up.
“We’ve been operating as a company for 20 years selling products for billions of users across many countries — and laws and regulations are evolving,” he says.
“Sometimes, the products and use cases evolve much faster, and we’re in the middle of trying to make it work.”
As a father of two, how does he feel about children viewing toxic content on YouTube? “Many of us are parents,” he says. “We deeply care about children’s safety and privacy.”
As a software engineer, he sees the solution in improved technology to spot and remove malign content.
“The toughest problem is not everyone agrees sometimes what is problematic content — and that’s hard.”
Google’s sheer commercial heft is becoming a growing political problem too. With a 92 percent share of the UK search market and a 37 percent share of the global digital advertising market, critics have long complained that Google — whose parent company Alphabet Inc., with a market cap of US$858 billion, is the world’s fourth largest company after Microsoft, Apple and Amazon — is simply too big.
The European Commission’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager has already levied fines on the company worth US$9.3 billion, but this month, the pressure intensified on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did Brussels reappoint Vestager to a new and enhanced role designed to take on big tech, but attorneys general from 50 US states launched an investigation into Google’s dominance in both search and advertising.
The mild-mannered Pichai, who was paid US$1.8 million last year and has a fortune of more than US$1 billion, offers a measured response but treads carefully. “It’s fair that governments, which have a charter to protect their citizens, are thinking about what is the best way to approach that… So there’s going to be important regulations that need to happen in technology — like you’ve had in other industries.”
How would he respond in the event of an ordered break up of Google — a proposal made by US presidential hopeful and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren?
Pichai swerves the question, saying it’s not for Google itself to determine whether it has become too large.
“It’s a societal level conversation,” he says. “Should a company be this big or not — it’s not for us to decide. What I can do is make sure we are working hard to build products which improve people’s lives.”
However, Pichai does offer a spirited defence of the benefits of being a big company that employs 107,000 people globally and shelled out US$16 billion on R&D in 2017, or 15 percent of its revenue.
“As a company, we have hundreds of researchers who work on AI in healthcare to help better detect and treat diseases, or the work we do on cybersecurity or threats around deep fakes.”
Perhaps it’s his engineering background that makes him favour clearer rules for how tech companies should operate.
He praises Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation laws, for example. “In Europe, there is a clear framework for privacy so that users have certainty about how their privacy is protected. Companies have clarity about how they can build products and safeguard user data. Hopefully, it’s a template for the rest of the world.”
With his thoughtful manner and low-key style, Pichai is in some ways the antithesis of the flashy Silicon Valley tech tycoon.
A strict vegetarian with a fondness for tea and long walks, he maintains a spartan office and lives with his wife and two kids in what has been described as a “shockingly modest” home in nearby Los Altos.
Google’s chief executive hasn’t received an equity award in two years because he turned down a big new grant of options in 2018. The reason? He felt he was already paid too generously.
Google’s unofficial motto has long been the simple phrase “don’t be evil”, and more than any other company, it has maintained a reputation for high ethical standards and liberal ideals. But there have been times recently when that legacy has felt like a burden.
Plans to build a censored search engine for the Chinese market — where its regular service was blocked by Beijing in 2010 — were dropped following criticism and an internal revolt by employees.
But Pichai says he remains proud of Google’s “strong ethical foundation”. “We still use ‘don’t be evil’,” he says.
“It was always an unofficial expression that we used internally at Google and we still use it today. And we always approach our work with a set of ethical standards. Given the scale at which technology works, I don’t see any other way.”
Does he ever worry about the future or the implications of some of the technology the company develops?
Pichai pauses to consider his answer. It’s important, he says, to design technology “in a way which doesn’t detract from the human experience and adds to the humanity of how things need to work”.
“I do worry about making sure, when we’re building technology, you’re bringing everyone along. I worry about a future which may not have equal access to technology and its benefits for everyone.”
Nevertheless, Pichai remains an unavowed optimist.
“Technology made a difference in my life and I see evidence of that today across our products. We need to be responsible about how we deal with technology, but it will be a big driver of future growth and prosperity and we all need to work hard to make sure it benefits everyone.”
This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of A.